Monday, August 10, 2015

Using the Story of the Montreal Suffragettes to Teach a Very Relevant Media Literacy Lesson

In 1911, Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst came to Canada, Toronto and Montreal to raise funds for her legal bills. Only on these and similar occasions did Canadians get to hear rational arguments about Britain's suffragette movement.


Well, I finally have got the first draft of Furies Cross the Mersey, the untold story of the suffrage movement in Montreal 1912/13 and an invasion of militant suffragettes from Britain - so now all I have to do is print it out double-spaced and work on it at leisure in the old fashioned way, with pen in hand.

I have a folder called Suffragette Tidbits, containing snippets of newspaper articles that I am using, all from 1912 and most about the British suffragettes.

I can't help but make this story a bit of a media literacy exercise, because that's my training. I studied media and worked in the media.

The suffragettes of Great Britain were very media conscious. They dressed well, and put the prettiest girls up front. (In my story, the press can't get over HOW PRETTY suffragette Barbara Wylie is!)

Just taking on the name 'suffragettes' - a label that was meant to be demeaning, showed great PR acumen.

Britain's newspapers had more photos than the ones in Canada - and the tabloids had the most pictures of course.

In Furies  one of my fake main characters, a rich girl at McGill's Royal Victoria College, decides she wants to work as a newspaper reporter and she comments on how the Montreal newspapers report on the suffragettes.

(With few photos in the Montreal papers, the good reporters painted 'word pictures.' When they talked about the suffragettes in a positive way, it often sounded like a fashion report.)

My character remarks that the papers either mock the militant suffragettes as silly or revile them as violent terrorists.

The headlines were important back then, as they are now, and these headlines tended to be sensational.

The little bits of editorializing tended to be mocking. In the Montreal Gazette anyway.

The NY times and the Gazette shared the same newsfeed, but they could put different headlines, which of course, changed people's perceptions of the article itself. (Just like today!)


But Carrie Derick, one of my real life characters, gets upset about the following headline, for one, because the reference to suffragettes is simply gratuitous.

The article (below)  is about an American Women's Labour Union visiting Montreal  in July 1912, where they are feted by the Montreal Council of Women, given a tour of Chateau Ramezay, etc.

Derick, an expert on women's working conditions in the city,  was not there to meet them: in my story she is cloistered in the Eastern Townships, upset about being denied the Chair of the Department of Botany at McGill, even though she deserved to get it.

A month earlier, in June, some striking garment workers, mostly women (but in a parade led by men and American Union Organizers) marched up St Lawrence Blvd yelling "No More Piecework" "No more blacklisting". The reporters remarked on 'how pretty' some of these factory workers were.

In Montreal women could march if they were part of a labour union, but not as suffragists.

Now THAT would have caused too much trouble, a woman-only march. Unseemly!

So Montreal's 'official' suffragists claimed to be 'sane and reasonable' and even simple, peaceful marches or demonstrations were out of the question in the city. Furies Cross the Mersey focuses on this fact and pokes fun of it.

Invade? Headline is toying with the women, here. When military language was used with respect to the militant suffragettes, it could be taken both ways.

Lots of people are coming to this website looking up Thérèse Casgrain and eugenics, but it is Carrie Derick (and lots of McGill profs) who supported eugenics. The Canadian establishment supported eugenics, but not exactly in the way Hitler twisted it.
Indeed, I have read that in Canada there was little opposition to the theory, unlike in Great Britain and the US and yes, even Germany.
Casgrain, being French Canadian, wasn't likely for eugenics. Eugenics scared the French Canadians, who had large families. The entire hygiene and purity movement did... which is why Adami chewed out the Montreal Council of Women in March 1912, saying they shouldn't head the Child Welfare Exhibit because they alienate the French fact and all they care about is Suffrage. I have Casgrain's  autobio on hand, but I won't bother to check: she would hardly admit to any prior interest in eugenics in 1971.
Still, in 1912, a coalition of French and English groups, led by Dr. Adami  of McGill and La Societe St Jean Baptiste, held a child welfare exhibit, where there was a display on eugenics. Right between the health and housing exhibits... Just par for the course, back then.